Tuesday afternoon of last week, I was sitting at my computer, working hard on a game of online Warcraft, when I heard a metallic clanging noise resonate from somewhere deep within the condominium.
“Hmm,” I thought, obliterating some 13 year old’s orc army, “That didn’t sound good, and also, why am I not writing a song right now?”
My foreboding sense of dread was confimed a moment later, when I recognized that the temperature was rising swiftly in my studio. I decided that as soon as I was done pwning this total noob, that I was going to act like an adult and go pretend like I knew what was happening with my air conditioning.
It wasn’t working. The external condenser / compressor / whatever the hell it’s called was blowing fine, but the doo-hickey inside the house was dead as a doornail. I shut down the system, stripped to my skivvies, and did what most suburban musicians (who know exactly how long it takes to create a elf hero and five archers) do when something in their house breaks down:
Call someone to fix it.
There were mitigating circumstances that aren’t relevant to this story, but I will tell you that it was Friday afternoon before it was fixed. Erica had the house totally rigged with dark blankets over windows and strategically placed fans. It was still in the mid 90s. Inside. At dusk. It was hot… that’s all I’m saying.
Needless to say, I was ecstatic when my new Russian friend showed up, new motor in hand. His nametag read “Jim” and that’s how he introduced himself, but his accent was as thick as Siberian winter, and totally unmistakable. At least to nerds like me who have most of “The Hunt for Red October” script memorized… “There are some things on this ship that don’t react kindly to bullets…” Actually that line was more of a Scottish / Russian accent hybrid, but we’re splitting hairs.
Anyways… as he worked, I kind of hovered over him, just to see what he was doing, and all of a sudden he stopped and looked out into the living room. My six month old, Zion, was sitting in his little play jumper thing in the middle of the floor watching a Baby Einstein video. Baby Einstein, for those of you who are childless, is a series of edutainment videos that contain large, colorful images set to simple classical arrangements. We call it baby crack. Even at only six months, he stares at it as if the origin of mankind was being explained. My father is convinced that there are subliminal messages buried in the videos and that at age seventeen, my children will be pre conditioned to have the sign of the beast tattooed on their foreheads. The reason my Russian friend stopped and stared was because this particular vid was a language video, and the language at the time was Russian.
“Sorry…” he said, “I’m just not used to hearing Russian spoken out loud.”
I asked him where he was from. The Ukraine. How long has he been here? Eleven years. So the wall had fallen before you came? Yes.
I asked him if he still thought of his home country as the Soviet Union or as the Ukraine. He said a little of both. He started telling me that when he was a kid, he believed that the USA was the greatest country on earth. What about now? A good country, he said, but not the greatest. He was apologizing the whole time for his candor… I told him there was nothing to worry about.
He said that he didn’t believe there was a “greatest” country anymore. He believes all nations have good and bad qualities to them. I told him I mostly agreed. I asked him what made him start to get dissillusioned with the US. The war, he answered. Then he said something that absolutely blew my mind, and is the whole reason I am writing this post.
“I told people when it started that it would never work, but they didn’t believe me. I told them that Islamic fascists are trouble and must be dealt with, but that this war would fail, and many Americans and Iraqis would die. I think eventually Afganistan will fall back into Islamic hands.”
How do you know that, I wanted to know.
“Well… I was there.” He seemed embarassed. “I fought in Afganistan. I just know how those people are when you go into their land violently. They’ll die gladly to get you out.”
So, allow me to spell this out for you. This guy, who I know nothing about, and is here in my home performing a service for me and drinking a glass of ice water and generally going about his business fought in the Soviet invasion of Afganistan in the early 80s.
You remember that, right? We sent Rambo over to kick their asses. We armed the Mujahadeen. We cheered and touted the Soviet failure to occupy their land as a great testament to the power of the human spirit and the immenent failure of communism? Remember that? Then, in the chaos that followed, this little group called The Taliban took over and then they became the bad guys when they blew up the WTC. Then we went over and kicked THEIR asses instead of the Soviets and now they’re still fighting us, nearly five years later?
So, just to recap:
80s: Russians Bad, Afgans Good, USA Good.
90s: Russians Getting Better, Afgans Nuetral, USA really good (grunge rulez!).
00s: Russians kinda ok, Afgans Bad, USA still good.
2006: Russian fixing my air-conditioning, Afgans still bad, USA still sorta good.
Is anyone else confused?
So… a few things struck me.
When it comes to issues of war and peace and international relations, I don’t know s**t from shinola, and neither do most of you. Listening to NPR, while educational and stimulating, is not combat experience. I don’t know if Jim from Ukraine knows more then I do about foreign relations or not. What I do know is that he’s seen things that I cannot comprehend. You should have seen the way his eyes shifted when we told me he had been there. They glazed over and I was practically watching him flash back to the desert. When he says that the war is not going to work, I am inclined to believe him, even though I get you I could rattle off a much more comprehensive and articulate argument to the contrary.
Go talk to a veteran who’s seen real bloodshed. You have to pry stories out of them. Both of my grandfathers served. One of them trained bomber pilots in Nebraska. The other flew missions out of England and North Africa and was shot down and spent two years in a POW camp.
Guess which one liked to tell war stories?
This is not a slam to my grandfather who stayed here. He was an older officer, married, and served his nation faithfully and with honor. His stories were not cavalier or boorish. It’s just that he never saw his friends get shot or spill their blood.
I’m not suggesting that you or I should hold our tongues, should we have an opinion on war, or peace, or how we should get from one to the other. I am only suggesting that some of us grew up in the suburbs, and some of us invaded Afganistan in 1980 with the Soviet army. We should think long and hard when we speak of such things.
I also realized that lots of improbable people have lots of interesting and compelling things to say. I am about to confess something to you that will make me sound like an insufferable asshole (my new favorite phrase… sorry, Melody) but I want you to bear with me.
Most of the time, people want to hear what I have to say. I am a leader, and I have gotten pretty good at it. When you’re a good leader, people ask you for your opinion. A lot. Most of the time, I actually kind of wish that they would leave me alone, and that they wouldn’t give my words such weight, because then I could swear more and it wouldn’t be a problem. Fortunately, my close friends have the good sense to put me in my place regularly and they all have potty mouths too, so I sound like June Cleaver.
All this to say that, and it’s unfortunate but true, but I have trouble diciplining myself to allow other people to simply talk, especially in a context where I am supposed to be in charge, like… every time I go to work… for example. Why is it that I have to be taken hostage by a busted air conditioner in order for me to just stop and chat? Well, I’ll tell you why: because my agenda was shot. Because I know dick about air conditioners. Because I was forced to rely on Jim to fix it. He was in charge. We were going to be done when we said we were done… or when cold air started blowing… either way.
People are really interesting. They have had experiences that I haven’t had. They’ve been places I’ve never been. They’re not all articulate, or even smart. They’re often clumsy, and unattractive. Curse this culture for conditioning us to spend time with only people who look or behave a certain way.
As always on a post like this, I don’t have a credible ending. I just have observations. It’s Sunday, so there are a fresh batch of post cards over at Post Secret. Post Secret is often not safe for work and/or offensive. If you have strong feelings regarding certain things… you ought to not click over. However… perhaps you might benefit from the excercise of getting behind someone else’s eyes for a few moments. Maybe after that we should go buy cups of coffee for strangers and see what happens next.
We’re way too insulated in our air conditioned fortresses, I know that for sure.